In "The Last Mama-On-The-Couch Play," one of the 11 "exhibits" in George C. Wolfe's play The Colored Museum, the protagonist writhes in a tenement slum (albeit one "with middle-class aspirations") in the apparently fatal clutches of The Man. As he does, a well-worn mother on a well-worn couch offers sacrosanct—but utterly useless—advice, while his sisters intone high-minded bromides on Egyptian royalty.
In "Chaos in Belleville," the ersatz play within Alice Childress' TROUBLE IN MIND, a ludicrous family of Southern sharecroppers wails operatically as a lynch mob approaches, incensed that young Job has tried to vote after being drafted for military service. Impotence and melodrama vie for supremacy as Sam, the man of the house, makes no provision for the family's security beyond whittling a stick, and the mother, Ruby, castigates her son: "Screamin' 'bout your rights! You got none ... I ain't never voted! I don't care who get in!"
Both scenes are supposedly loving—but certainly lethal—takedowns of longtime conventions in African-American theater.
After a histrionic laying-on of hands in Trouble, Ruby seals Job's fate, demanding that he give himself up to the law for the non-crime of voting instead of catching a nearby freight train to elude the hate-filled crowd. In a scene deliberately top-heavy with overacting and overweening nobility, the faithful plantation owner, Reynard, and his daughter, Carrie, look on with touching, but helpless, concern. This surely qualifies as one of the most grotesque moments I've ever witnessed in Paul Green Theatre.
But a telling difference separates these twin burlesques. Wolfe's withering satire, which debuted off-Broadway in 1986, railed against theater that did little more than enshrine African-American victimization on stage in the wake of Lorraine Hansberry's A Raisin in the Sun. Trouble in Mind, Childress' similar indictment, premiered off-Broadway in 1955—four years before Hansberry's landmark achievement.
It's documentable, then, that Childress was ahead of her time. And, as the theatergoing community prepares for the eight local productions and uncounted school shows observing Black History Month, she still is.
Childress and her central character, New York actor Wiletta Mayer, are both impatient in this work, not only with writers who focus solely on African-American disempowerment and martyrdom, but also entertainment industries that only stage that representation. A 20-year stage veteran, Mayer (an authoritative Kathryn Hunter-Williams) thinks she has no illusions about her trade as she clues in newbie actor John Nevins (suave Myles Bullock) on being an African-American actor in the white culture of the 1950s.
But Mayer chafes as she slowly realizes that accepting roles that reinforce the status quo will never let her do something genuinely grand in the theater. Her conflict with abrasive white director Al Manners (Schuyler Scott Mastain) escalates; when Manners observes, "The story goes a certain way," Mayer cuts him off: "It ought to go another way."
Under guest director Jade King Carroll, their explosive final confrontation constitutes a powerful indictment of the theatrical community, then and now, and PlayMakers shows true artistic leadership in addressing such issues head-on. This troubling, timely work also forces us to question which stories we are ready, as a culture, to hear about each other—and the unseen economic realities that constrict or eliminate access to them.